It's a huge challenge, but armed with a new and deadly weapon, the Longhorn football team might be primed to pull off the upset of the prep season.
In the second round of the Class 3A Arizona State Tournament, played yesterday (Thursday) at Mesa College, the Longhorns squared off against the Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets (results not available at press time).
Because Blue Ridge is unbeaten, top-ranked, a defending state champion and owns a 64-0 win over Payson this season, the Yellow Jackets were overwhelming favorites to trample the Horns and put an end to the Rim country team's tournament stay.
Payson, however, entered the showdown with a ray of hope uncovered Nov. 2 in the team's state opening round 62-41 victory over Eloy Santa Cruz.
The new-found optimism rests squarely on the shoulder pads of junior halfback Waylon Pettet.
The speedster has been a reliable back most of the season, but against Santa Cruz he put on an offensive display that would swell the chest of any professional running back.
With 237 yards rushing, an 80-yard pass reception, a 96-yard kickoff return and three touchdowns, Pettet was a one-player wrecking machine.
Longtime PHS football fans, including stat keeper Bill Lawson and former school principal Tom Meck, say they can't recall a Payson football player ever turning in such an impressive offensive outing.
If Pettet can duplicate those heroics against the rugged Blue Ridge defense, the Horns might have a shot at an upset that would set the state sports scene on its ear.
In addition to the discovery of Pettet as an offensive force, the Longhorns received more good news when senior fullback Levi Armstrong, walking with the aid of crutches, declared Monday afternoon he would return to action against Blue Ridge.
Armstrong the team's leading rusher with 1,046 yards sat out the second half of the Santa Cruz game after stitches on a foot injury pulled loose.
With Pettet and Armstrong in the lineup, the Horns sport a one-two punch that could give the Yellow Jacket D fits.
Senior Ky Bradley is another bullet in the Horn arsenal. With 289 yards rushing and 744 passing on the season, he's proven to be a multitalented performer. For the Horns to have a shot at a win, however, Bradley will have to cut down on his interceptions. Against Santa Cruz, he was intercepted three times but still managed to finish six for nine through the air for 151 yards and two TDs.
Calling on the D
If the Payson offense clicks as it did last week, the Horn defense must rise to the occasion and put the clamps on the Yellow Jackets' passing attack.
In the earlier season loss to BR, the Horns were stung early and often by the Moro connection. Quarterback Alex Moro hooked up with brother Adam six times for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Alex Moro finished the evening with nine completions in 13 attempts of 287 yards. The Moros' helped the Jackets jump out to a 20-0 first quarter lead and 36-0 at halftime.
Longhorns who were called upon to stop the vaunted BR attack include Levi Amon, Ky Bradley, Sean Pickle, Jeremy Greenburg, and Josh Higlie.
Amon, a senior inside linebacker, is the team leader in assisted tackles with 59. After a slow start this season, he improved enough for defensive coordinator Jack Morris to call him "probably our best linebacker."
Bradley, who rotates between linebacker and safety, is second on the team in assisted tackles with 50. In solo tackles, he's far and away the team leader with 15. Higley is second among the Horns with nine. Pickle, a noseguard, and Greenburg, a tackle have 48 and 42 tackles.
When it comes to harassing the quarterback which will be extremely important against BR Greenburg has 11 hurries and Pickle 10.
Immediately after the Payson vs. Blue Ridge match at Mesa, surprisingly, Ganado will take on Wickenburg. Ganado advanced to the second round with an upset victory over North champion Winslow.
Wickenburg whipped Fountain Hills in the first round.
Also at Mesa Friday, Snowflake plays Wilcox and Parker takes on Coolidge.
Survivors of the second round meet for final four showdowns Nov. 16 at Mesa. The state championship will be decided at 7 p.m. Nov. 24 on the campus of Tempe McClintock High School.